Ben Witherington and Chad Thornhill on *The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism*, Part 2

, posted by SEA

BEN: One of the things that surprised me about your response about the covenants is that it does not reflect the work of various OT scholars, like Meredith Kline, who made quite clear how similar the OT covenants, in particular the Mosaic one, were like ANE king/subject or lord/vassal treaties. By this I mean, that when a covenant was broken, and especially when it was flagrantly broken, and repeatedly broken, then the lord, in this case Yahweh, simply enacts the curse sanctions that are part of the covenant, and that covenant is over. The ruler may or may not choose to have a new covenant with the subjects, but if he does it is emphatically not a renewal of the previous covenant. Rather, it is a new covenant entirely, a new contract, which nevertheless the ruler may choose to have some of the stipulations in it as in the previous one. So, I am dubious about the notion of ‘one covenant in several administrations’ even if just applied to the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenants. There is little doubt in my mind that the Israelite broke the Mosaic covenant to pieces, and repeatedly, and God sent them off to exile, both the northern and southern tribes, which was the implementation of the curse sanctions. Thus, while I agree with your point about God’s unconditional commitment to a people, this does not imply a commitment that involves relating to them on the basis of one covenant in various administrations. Indeed, it shows the graciousness of God that he is willing to start over with a new contract in Jesus. I thus find the suggestion of Block unappealing as it ignores the ANE analogies. How would you respond?

CHAD: I suppose I would begin by recognizing that we find throughout the Old Testament a remnant, however small, of those who are faithful to the covenant. Even if the prophets themselves are the only faithful ones remaining, there still remains a portion of the people who continue in the covenant. It is still possible, of course, to view the covenant with the nation as broken based upon the majority having utterly disobeyed the stipulations. The covenant curses also certainly play a part in how we understand what is going on with Israel at various points in the Old Testament, and N. T. Wright, in particular, has taken up consideration of this and placed it in his larger interpretive narrative for what the New Testament authors think is going on with Jesus’ ministry and death and resurrection. The new covenant, even in Jeremiah 31, is envisioned as a “new” thing and it is clear in the context that the prophet understands that Israel has broken the covenant. There is, and I think this was part of Block’s point and where I would push back, still continuity however, in that the Law of God will be put in the people’s hearts. This is not, in Jeremiah, anticipated as a new Law with new stipulations, so in that sense, though there is a qualitative difference between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Jeremiah, there remains continuity with Israel being God’s people and following God’s Law. The question, of course, then becomes how the New Testament writers appropriate that material. It seems to me that the discontinuity tends to be overemphasized, so I would be inclined to say that the NT writers understood the new covenant as still bearing a good deal of continuity with what Jeremiah envisioned, though obviously with some new angles as well. So while I would recognize the discontinuity (i.e., there is something “new” about it) and certainly the failure of Israel to faithfully follow God on the whole, I think we should also recognize the way in which the new covenant is framed as being in some sense a continuation of God’s previous relationship with Israel which has been now expanded to the Gentiles.

BEN: In your second chapter you say that in early Jewish literature, elect status is linked to the character and quality of the individual and their faithfulness, rather than to some soteriological status (i.e. of being saved). Could you unpack this notion a bit more for us.

CHAD: In the second chapter I focus primarily upon examining the various ways in which individuals, usually named and usually prominent figures in Israel’s history, are described in some of these election-focused passages. What I find remarkable is that never is there an indication that what the Jewish authors mean by “elect” when talking about these individuals is “chosen by God for eschatological salvation.” Rather, the clear emphasis is either upon God’s choice of an individual for a particular task or role (e.g., Aaron as priest or David as king) or upon the character of the individual, or sometimes both. In the case of the latter, election language seems to primarily take on the meaning of “excellent” (which is in the range of meaning for the word-group) and is used in some cases as largely synonymous with terms like “holy” or “faithful” as sort of a means of piling on the character description.

BEN: You begin your discussion with Sirach, and show, that when the author in fact comments on the basis of election for Moses, it is described as happening in connection with his character—his meekness and faithfulness. This seems quite similar to what we hear elsewhere in Jewish literature about Abraham being credited with righteousness because he faithfully was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (reading the Abraham story backwards from the Akedah to his call). So you cite S. Grindheim (on p.30) approvingly when he says ‘divine election [is] based on the ethical and religious quality of the elect.” I would see this as exceedingly important because I’ve presented in Jesus the Sage, considerable data to show the influence of Sirach not only on Jesus but also on James, his brother as well. What is even more important is that Jesus ben Sira while reflecting clearly a theology of election, reveals no noticeable theology of the afterlife! In other words, he does not connect election with individual salvation in the hereafter whether by life in heaven or resurrection. Say more about your reading of this data, and the relevance you see it having in helping us interpret the NT data.

CHAD: Sirach has always been one of my favorite Second Temple texts for so many of the interesting developments which it creates as well as for ways it appears to influence the New Testament writers, and as you suggest, possibly Jesus himself. There are a few relevant passages from ben Sira relevant to the topic, but the highlight is probably 44-50 and the hymn of the fathers. Here God’s choosing of Moses, for example, is preceded by the author’s description of Moses’ character. The movement then is from character to choice rather than vice versa. This pattern is reflected in numerous other places as well. Again, it seems the key significance lies in the fact that there is no soteriological linking with this terminology and the character traits precede God’s “choice.” For these individuals to be “elect” is to be of excellent character and/or selected for a particular role. In terms of the New Testament, I think it is important that first we resist the temptation to see this as some sort of Pelagian arrangement in the minds of these Jewish authors since service, not soteriology, is what is in view. Likewise, when we find this kind of language applied to individuals in similar contexts as what we find here, we must also resist the temptation to read some sort of predetermined soteriological arrangement into the terminology when that is clearly not what these Jewish authors meant in their writings as it related to God choosing particular individuals.

BEN: In your discussion of the non-canonical ‘Davidic’ psalms you point out how the phrase ‘chosen one’ parallels the phrase ‘holy one’ and this status becomes the basis for a plea for salvation, or in this case rescue. This suggests to me that the author or authors saw election as one thing, and salvation as another. Am I right? And indeed, as you say, it appears that one sees one’s self as chosen on the basis that one is upright, or holy. It is because David is pious and pure of heart that he is viewed as ‘a man after my own heart’. Yes? David is chosen not because of some inscrutable predetermined will of God, but because God viewed him as the right man for the job? Right?

CHAD: In the “Additional Psalms of David,” I think the psalmist is largely following the pattern we find in the Old Testament where salvation is primarily from physical danger rather than from sin or eschatological judgment. David’s plea in these psalms for deliverance seems to rest on the office which he held, and thus if God did not deliver his “elect one,” that is his chosen ruler over Israel, the success of the Davidic kingdom will be hindered or derailed. Since David’s role is divinely sanctioned, for David to be destroyed means for God’s purposes to be thwarted. It seems clear, as you note, in these psalms that David is the “right man” based upon his character, which is the impetus for God’s choice of him for the job. Again the election language applied to David here individually is clearly character- and role-oriented.

BEN: The material in 1 Enoch seems to further associate being chosen with being righteous, and obeying God’s law. It involves corporate election, and the term ‘chosen’ as Nickelsburg stresses, is particularly applied to the righteous remnant who keep the covenant. In other words, Sanders, at points, in straining to show that ‘being chosen’ is purely a matter of God’s gracious favor, and not a matter of God knowing something about the chosen, has ‘over-egged’ the pudding as the British would say. In fact texts like 1 Enoch say both things. God’s choice is gracious, but the chosen are the righteous, the obedient, in the end. Comment?

CHAD: In 1 Enoch we move into a slightly different situation since there is eschatological salvation envisioned in the book. There is a sense, then, in which we could say the “elect” are the “saved,” if we want to use those terms, but there is no indication in the book that election means a pre-temporal choice by God for these individuals to be delivered. The combination of the election terminology in the book with terms like “righteous” and “holy” seems to again, as Nickelsburg notes, emphasize the quality of the community. Sanders tilts the equation too far in the divine agency side of the equation for most of the Jewish literature he interacts with, ignoring, I think, often the counter-indications in those texts which suggest that obedience and some conditional situation is in view. I focus more on the specifics of that in later chapters, but I do find there to be quite a bit of odd and unnecessary tension between the divine/human situation in terms of how Sanders understand what is going on in these texts.

BEN: As you point out, both in the OT, and in early Jewish sources the focus of the election language is on being chosen for a particular task or function, like ‘my servant Cyrus’, which has nothing to do with that particular individual’s salvation (in the Christian sense of the term). With this sort of Jewish precedent, why do you think it is that Christian readers of Paul have often simply assumed that election necessarily has to do with salvation, rather than function, purpose, or task?

CHAD: As I discuss later, I think there is a sense in which election is connected to soteriology, but it cannot be reduced to it and should not be seen as operating on the individual level as a soteriological activity. There are simply no examples of language used in Second Temple sources which understand God to be choosing individuals for eschatological salvation. There are lots of examples of individuals being chosen for particular roles or tasks. So I think part of the interpretive confusion is that the terminology itself has been filled with concepts which arise in later interpretation and the historical context and original implications of the language has been largely overlooked. There are, of course, passages which lend themselves to being read as reinforcing that kind of interpretation (e.g., Rom 8-11), and I deal with those in later chapters. Where election language and eschatological salvation intersect always has the collective in view.

BEN: I would imagine that one sort of pushback against your presentation in this book would be to say, rather dismissively, ‘well that may well be true of the use of election language in those early Jewish sources, but Paul is different’. I like to say a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. It appears to me that if one ignores the bearing of the early Jewish context of Paul’s discourse, then one is very likely to read the text anachronistically, reading into Paul later Christian (and in this case Reformation) ideas into Paul. How do you respond to that kind of pushback and problematic reading of Paul?

CHAD: I have this conversation from time to time with my students when I suggest the necessity of approaching interpretation in conversation with the ancient thought world(s), and in particular with Jewish sources. I think this partly results from accepting too hard of a break between Judaism and Christianity within the pages of the New Testament. While that break certainly came more definitively later, within at least most of the New Testament period, and certainly for Paul, I think the evidence indicates that Christianity was understood as a Jewish sect rather than as a separate religion. The history of interpretation certainly also has something to do with this bent toward reading Paul’s election language. The greater distancing between Christians and Jews which followed in the centuries after the New Testament and the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius both significantly shifted how Christian interpreters approached these questions. Augustine, of course, was greatly influential on the Reformers as well, and with Protestantism taking its theological queues primarily from the Reformers, we thus have distanced ourselves both theologically as well as culturally and historically from the New Testament. I think my response would be simply that if we are not situating Paul’s thought in the first century as a first century Jewish follower of Jesus, than where are we situating his thought? As you suggest, to fail to contextualize his theology in the first century matrix means that we contextualize Paul wherever we want, whether with the Reformers or within postmodern thought, etc. In my view, the only way to truly anchor the New Testament’s teaching and avoid eisegetical understandings is to read it within the thought world of its point of origin.

BEN: Jubilees is a very interesting early Jewish text. Explain if you will the difference between what you call corporate representation (sometimes called federal headship— e.g. ‘as in Adam all die…’) as opposed to the notion of corporate or group election. It would appear you have both such concepts in Jubilees, and election involves both the grace of God, and final salvation involves necessary obedience to the covenant (God will save the faithful). Expand on these concepts for us.

CHAD: Corporate representations involves when a particular figure (such as Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, etc.) stands as a representative of a certain group to the extent that the activities or characteristics of that individual are expected of and/or projected upon the group. In the book of Jubilees, it is most prominently Jacob who functions in this manner as a sort of microcosm of the group which the author identifies as the people of God. Jacob is thus portrayed as a paradigmatic law keeper in that he is properly circumcised, honors his parents, does not intermarry with Gentiles, etc. Jacob’s covenant status is contrasted with that of Esau who likely represents for the author either Gentiles or apostate Jews. God’s choice of Jacob and “some of his descendants” (i.e., it is not progeny alone which counts one among the elect) is based upon his foreknowledge of Esau’s covenant-breaking behavior. The message of the book is thus that those who identify with Jacob (i.e., properly observe the Law as outlined by the author, particularly obeying commands which were Jewish distinctives) are God’s people and all others, or perhaps primarily apostate Jews, stand in the line of Esau as those under God’s judgment. The other implicit message in the book is for the faithful to remain so and for the apostates to change their ways, and thus be reconciled to God and his people. This indicates that the author does not view this as a pre-determined arrangement which cannot be affected by the behavior of the individual. So in a sense, this is a collective view of election, though it focuses on the collective by means of the representative. There are other ways that Jubilees indicates a corporate election scenario, such as the remark that only “some of the sons” of Jacob will be included in God’s behavior. Salvation in Jubilees is not simply a matter of God’s grace through election, though the covenantal arrangement is indeed graciously given. Faithful obedience (though not perfection, since atonement is possible for a majority of sins) is required for God’s people.

BEN: Certainly one of the major agendas of E.P. Sanders in his landmark books, including Paul and Palestinian Judaism, was to make clear that early Judaism was not a religion of works righteousness, as opposed to Christianity which was a religion of grace. He seeks to demonstrate that grace is the basis of salvation in Jewish literature, to which God’s people respond with covenantal nomism. It seems to me that again and again, Sanders reads Judaism in light of the later Christian theology of salvation by grace through faith, often neglecting the evidence that while Judaism was certainly not a graceless religion, nevertheless, there are numerous texts which suggests that God chooses and rewards the righteous, by which is meant those who keep the covenant, whereas the damned are the wicked like Esau, or those who keep breaking the covenant. Say more about where you see Sanders getting the variety of views in early Judaism wrong. For example, in Jubilees election seems to be: 1) corporate (happening within Jacob/Israel and 2) it is tied not to physical descent as the deciding factor but is contingent on righteousness or religious purity.

CHAD: Yes, Judaism certainly does sound very Protestant in many of Sanders’ descriptions. I think it is clear that Jubilees views election as corporate and conditional. I argue in the book that I think this is by and large the way most Jews as represented in the extant literature understood election. The few exceptions do not move away from this framework, but rather are ambiguous in their descriptions. With Jubilees in particular, Sanders puts quite a bit of weight upon 1:17-29, which he sees as envisioning a national future restoration of Israel, and thus the salvation of all (or at least nearly all) Jews. In my view, this ignores or misconstrues the major thrust of the book which warns the Jewish people against the judgment which will result from their disobedience. I think the more likely scenario, as Mark Adam Elliott has argued, is most Jewish writers, and here in particular the author of Jubilees, understood the faithful to be in the minority of Jews, and thus judgment to be in the present upon most of the Jewish people. Thus all the warnings and exhortations to obedience which occur throughout the literature are seeking to point the unfaithful back toward obedience to the covenant stipulations. So this does not mean we should view Judaism as a works-salvation religion any more than we should view Christianity as a works-salvation religion. In both cases, the offer of salvation is graciously extended by God alone, not earned meritoriously through “good works,” but committing oneself to the salvific arrangement (i.e., the covenant) entails obligations on the part of God’s people. Christianity has its own “do’s and don’ts,” and to ignore how that is framed in the New Testament, just as to ignore the situation in Judaism, is to import a theology foreign to it.

BEN: It has always surprised me how NT scholars have frequently neglected the insights one can gain from a work like the Parables of Enoch where we see the messianic figure called the Righteous One=the Elect One=the Son of Man, and his people likewise are the elect ones preciously because they are the righteous ones. Talk to us about the insights for understanding the NT theology of election, and equally importantly NT Christology, from a work such as this or even a work like The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. How is this material relevant to understanding both Jesus and Paul in the NT?

CHAD: 1 Enoch is another fascinating piece of Jewish literature. In particular the Son of Man figure, which occurs in a portion of the work most scholars date prior to the NT, has some interesting parallels with Jesus’ Son of Man language in the Gospels. This is due in part, of course, to both of these traditions drawing upon the Daniel 7 Son of Man material. The Son of Man figure in Daniel 7 is given authority to rule and is served by the nations, and thus is presented as somewhat of an exalted figure. In 1 Enoch, there is a very close identification between this “Son of Man” figure (who is also called “the Righteous One,” “the Elect One,” and the “Before Time”) and the elect (i.e., the people of God). The judgment in this portion of 1 Enoch is focused upon the unrighteous rulers who are oppressing the people. The “Son of Man” secures the victory of God for his people and vindicates them before these rulers and the world. The Son of Man also acts as a light to the nations and is somehow a catalyst for repentance for the unrighteous before the final judgment, when the wicked are destroyed. The conditional nature is thus reinforced in Enoch’s vision, and the fate of the elect ones is closely associated with this Son of Man figure. The Testaments also provide some important insights to Jewish Messianic scenarios. As is sometimes thought of the Qumran materials, the Testaments at times seem to indicate the presence of two Messianic figures, Levi and Judah (i.e., a priestly Messiah and a ruler Messiah). Sometimes the priestly Messiah is prominent in the Testaments, and at other times it is the ruler Messiah who takes center stage. As it relates to election, there is a possibility that Levi and Judah also act as sort of corporate representatives of the elect people in the Testaments who are to be emulated, though this is not as clear as what we find in Jubilees. The emphasis on the righteous character of the elect, though not reinforcing specific legal requirements as Jubilees does, also points to the conditional nature of election for the author of the Testaments.

BEN: You see Gal. 1.15-16 as being about God’s choosing Paul for a specific task, namely being the apostle to the Gentiles, noting the echoes of the calling of prophets (Jerm. 1.4-5; Is. 49.1,5-6) in earlier Jewish literature. The language, in other words is not, or at least not primarily about a soteriological matter. You then stress that Rom. 16.13 connects being chosen with the character of the one chosen, in this case Rufus (perhaps the son of Simon of Cyrene), not as Tom Schreiner suggests, namely that election here is connected with the eternal salvation of Rufus. How would you see the relationship between election and salvation if salvation is a gratuitous gift of God’s grace?

CHAD: In both of these instances, election language is applied to individuals and is not in a context which is soteriologically charged. The only way we would end up interpreting these texts as indicated individual predestination to salvation is if we preload that in the terminology. On the collective level, speaking broadly, I would say that God has chosen to form a people who reflect the image of His son to the world. This people are “the saved,” but election and salvation should not be equated. I wouldn’t see election as a part of an ordo as much as it is a facet of soteriology which has soteriology in broad terms (eschatological salvation but also transformation and mission) in view. I think some of that framework will develop more clearly in the chapters to come.

BEN: Would it be fair to say that Paul, in commenting in 1 Cor. 15 about both Christ and Adam being representative heads of a group of people, may be suggesting that if one is in Adam, one is bequeathed his legacy of sin and death, but if one is in Christ, that one derives salvation and everlasting life? My point would be that election can refer to either of these federal heads, and salvation is to be found only in connection with Christ— those who are in him are the latter fruits, who will rise to a good resurrection when he returns. In other words, there is no salvation if one is not in Christ, the Elect One, but we can certainly distinguish these two concepts. For example, Christ is the Elect One, but he is not ‘the saved one’. He has no need of salvation in the Christian sense.

CHAD: Yes, I think it is safe to say that Paul sees Christ, however we view the Adamic condition, as the only place in which that plight can be resolved. It seems to me there is not case to be made, or at least no plausible one, from the New Testament that any other arrangement was in mind. I’ve tried to read the “Radical New Perspective” with openness to their position, and while I think they can help clarify aspects of Paul’s identity and thought, to suggest some sort of a two-ways scenario, where Jews continue keeping Torah and Christ is for Gentiles exclusively, runs too roughshod over Paul’s theological framework, and especially Romans 9-11. On the other side of the equation, a universalistic understanding of Paul likewise doesn’t obtain, based on how he understands salvation as conditioned (it is only “in Christ”) and in light of his Jewish backgrounds, which always anticipates some sort of final judgment of the wicked. Christ as the “Elect One” certainly could not have the implication of Jesus as one God has predetermined to save, and this again would confirm what we see in the OT and Jewish literature as it relates to election language applied to individuals always being character- or role-oriented.

BEN: Share briefly your understanding of 2 Cor. 5.14-21 and its relevance for your thesis about election in Paul.

CHAD: I would see 2 Cor 5:14-21 as another example of how Paul piggybacks upon the corporate representation framework found in Jewish literature and applies it to Christ. There is representation in the death of Christ in which it both affects believers on a soteriological level while also leading them to their own death. This death to self which Paul sees as a part of the Christian soteriological process I think also reflects Jesus’ own understanding of discipleship as presented in Mark 8-9. There is both, then, as Dunn suggests, a representative and a participatory sense to Christ’s death in which he both takes on and dies the death of humanity while also calling humans to participate in his death for their salvation/transformation. As the end of the passage indicates, this reconciliation to God which they experience then becomes a part of their identity as the reconciled who bring reconciliation. While we often make distinctions between salvation, transformation, and mission, I think the case can be made that Paul sees these as one thing. To be saved is to be transformed. To be transformed is to bring transformation to others. These are not categories which should be wedged apart but which must be seen as mutually informing. Thus, in light of this, Wright suggests that we find the essence of election theology here in this passage since through the faithfulness of Israel’s Messiah, the people of God are transformed to be agents of the kingdom and representatives of the work of God in Christ. In a sense, then, to not see election in this passage is to think of it only as a part of a soteriological ordo and not how it functions in its OT and Jewish context, which, though having soteriological implications, is primarily about the kind of people God’s people should be.

[This post was taken from Ben Witherington’s blog.]